Northeast Times

Final Stop

Joe Sul­li­van has col­lec­ted mod­el trains for as long as he can re­mem­ber. Now, he says, the massive col­lec­tion needs a new des­tin­a­tion.

It’s fair to say that Joe Sul­li­van, own­er of Fishtown’s Palm Auto, is something of a col­lect­or.

On the first floor of his Frank­ford Av­en­ue home, a vari­ety of re­stored — and oth­ers with work un­der­way — vin­tage auto­mo­biles fills the large gar­age.

Here, the 63-year-old Sul­li­van can proudly show off the award-win­ning 1935 Ford Tu­dor that he re­stored with his son, and a pristine 1964 Pon­tiac con­vert­ible that movie­makers bor­rowed for a few scenes in the 1998 film Steal­ing Home, which starred Jod­ie Foster.

But this isn’t his most ex­tens­ive col­lec­tion.

That col­lec­tion, which he has pas­sion­ately amassed over six dec­ades, is up­stairs and fills al­most his en­tire home.

Sul­li­van’s mis­sion has been to amass an enorm­ous col­lec­tion of mod­el trains. But now, he says, he’s ready to sell the whole thing.

ldquo;I’ve al­ways had trains, wherever I lived … I get up every morn­ing and sit with a cup of cof­fee and watch the trains for a while,” Sul­li­van said as he offered a tour of his col­lec­tion dur­ing Novem­ber’s First Fri­day cel­eb­ra­tion along Frank­ford Av­en­ue.

After so many years, he’s ready to sell the col­lec­tion be­cause of one simple real­ity. “It’s time for me to hang it up,” he said.

When you enter Sul­li­van’s home, you’re in­tro­duced to noth­ing less than a small world that func­tions at the throw of a switch.

Die-cast air­planes dangle over a papi­er-mâch&ea­cute; rav­ine, plastic wait­resses forever of­fer painted ham­burgers at the win­dows of vehicles parked at a small diner, and it’s all sur­roun­ded by train tracks.

While his hands worked a net­work of switches and di­als linked to the mini­ature coun­tryside by a wind­ing mass of wires, Sul­li­van al­most seemed like a mu­si­cian sit­ting down to per­form.

He stepped to one side of the dis­play and flipped a switch that brought up lights on the table, then, as he stood at his con­trol pan­els, and with the mere flick of a wrist, the en­tire city whirred to life.

As he poin­ted to a small fire­house, lights turned on and, through a small win­dow, a plastic fire­fight­er could be seen slid­ing down a fire­man’s pole. Out­side, a small dog let out a re­cor­ded bark as the fire­house doors opened and a fire truck slid out on a track.

ldquo;Here, wait, look at this,” said a smil­ing Sul­li­van as he poin­ted to a small green satchel dangling from a post near the train track.

ldquo;We are go­ing to pick up that green bag and drop off a white one,” he said.

And, sure enough, at Sul­li­van’s com­mand, a train sped by the post and plucked the green bag, leav­ing a small plastic white bag in its place.

Along the tracks is a town with a diner and fire­house as well as a school, church and play­ground. A small march­ing band is on little Main Street. A rep­lica of Phil­adelphia’s his­tor­ic Route 23 trol­ley — the same design as Gir­ard Av­en­ue’s Route 15 trol­ley — circles the city cen­ter.

He wanted his trol­ley to be the Route 23 be­cause his moth­er used to love to ride it around the city when she was young, Sul­li­van ex­plained.

“It went every­where. People used to come to the city and ride it on the week­ends be­cause it just went all over,” he said.

At one end of the track, Sul­li­van even cre­ated a seedy side of town, com­plete with hand-painted graf­fiti and what he called “ladies of the even­ing” stand­ing out­side a motel.

ldquo;I get all kinds of re­ac­tions when people see this stuff,” Sul­li­van said as he walked around the dis­play. “I love show­ing it.”

All around the room, there are train sets that Sul­li­van has shelved — in­clud­ing his fa­vor­ite, a North­ern Pa­cific set that he nev­er runs. These days, he can’t even keep count of how many trains are in the col­lec­tion, and he said it’s hard to put a price on the whole thing.

He has a few sets from the 1930s and he still has the ori­gin­al boxes for most of the trains, so he be­lieves they are re­l­at­ively valu­able.

For years, Sul­li­van’s col­lec­tion has ex­is­ted as something of a hid­den gem on Frank­ford Av­en­ue in Fishtown.

Al­most every month, he opens his home for the First Fri­day com­munity fest­iv­al to al­low res­id­ents and oth­er vis­it­ors to check out his col­lec­tion. He pro­motes it by open­ing his gar­age and dis­play­ing one of his vin­tage trains.

Folks al­ways want to see everything in op­er­a­tion.

ldquo;I had a kid up here who chal­lenged me to make every train run,” he said. “He just didn’t be­lieve that everything worked. He got me, though, be­cause one train I couldn’t get to work. But that’s not too bad, is it?”

As he looked out over his col­lec­tion, Sul­li­van talked about his his­tory in the mil­it­ary. He was a U.S. Air Force crew chief and mech­an­ic who worked on F-111 planes. In fact, he ad­ded, work­ing on mod­el trains as a child later helped him as a mech­an­ic, thanks to hav­ing learned the fun­da­ment­als of wir­ing and how to clean and main­tain elec­tron­ics.

Now he’s ready to un­load the whole col­lec­tion.

He’ll show­case the whole setup again dur­ing the next First Fri­day fest­iv­it­ies, on Dec. 2, and then he’ll turn his at­ten­tion to the un­doubtedly bit­ter­sweet chore of get­ting rid of it all.

He’ll keep just one train set. He was a child when he re­ceived it in 1953.

“I plan to keep one set and that’s all … just the one from the very be­gin­ning,” he said. ••

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com

Take a ride …

Fishtown’s Joe Sul­li­van will soon be selling his enorm­ous col­lec­tion of toy trains. Be­fore then, he’s of­fer­ing free tours of the col­lec­tion and shows of his in­tric­ately de­tailed train dis­play.

On Fri­day, Dec. 2, start­ing at about 5 p.m., Sul­li­van will open his home at 1811 Frank­ford Ave. to any­one eager to see some mini­ature, mech­an­ic­al ma­gic.

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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